The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

Though it is a relatively slim book compared to what we have come to expect from Elena Ferrante, this novel is just as effective as others at getting to the crux of a woman’s suppressed wound and subsequent behaviour, leaving the reader much to reflect on.

psychological thriller film ItalianI just love the way her novels cast women in various stages of life, and this one, like Troubling Love is set over a summer, but couldn’t be more different, despite the common element of intensity. Our protagonist here is an empty nester.

In The Lost Daughter, an ambiguous title that is left to the reader to decide, Leda, a middle aged divorcée, is facing a long summer; her young adult daughters have now left home, moving to Canada to be with their father.

For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.

Though she speaks with them every day, the closeness they had when they were physically present, creates a space, an absence, that begins to fill with other memories, that reach further back to her own childhood.

Freedom and Longing

As the novel opens, she has decided to depart for the summer to the beach, renting an apartment in a seaside town and is looking forward to the freedom. A Professor of English literature, she has brought her work with her, balancing her time between preparation for the year ahead and relaxing at the beach.

I love the scent of resin: as a child, I spent summers on beaches not yet completely eaten away by the concrete of the Camorra – they began where the pinewood ended. That scent was the scent of vacation, of the summer games of childhood.

She drives out of town to find a quiet place and this becomes her preferred beach for the summer. Parked under the pines, she walks through the wooded area to the small beach beyond.

In less than a week, it had all become a peaceful routine. I liked the squeak of the pinecones opening to the sun as I cross the pinewood, the scent of small green leaves that seemed to be myrtle, the strips of bark peeling off the eucalyptus trees.

motherhood obsession Maggie GyllenhaalShe becomes acquainted with the regulars, the boy who puts out the chairs and umbrellas, a young woman with her child, a pregnant woman – part of a large Neapolitan family.

She doesn’t know them, but they feel familiar, they remind her of the family she grew up in, the family she moved away from, both physically and literally.

They were all related, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws, and their laughter rang out noisily. They called each by name with drawn out cries, hurled exclamatory or conspiratorial comments, at times quarreled: a large family group, similar to the one I had been part of when I was a girl, the same jokes, the same sentimentality, the same rages.

Observation and Obsession

She watches in particular, the young mother Nina, and her daughter Lena, eventually engaging with them, observing the family dynamics, revisiting old feelings, remembering events from the past.

She talked to the child and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love, the tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings. I was enchanted. Languages for me have a secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote.  I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness: I can’t take you anymore, I can’t take any more…That woman, Nina, seemed serene, and I felt envious.

The Lost Daughter Elena Ferrante doll little girl the past

Photo by Isabella

When a small drama occurs, it creates an opportunity for her to interact with them; it is from this moment the tension mounts and we realise there is much we do not know about our protagonist, about her motivations for acting the way she does. A sense of unease permeates.

I loved the way this begins like a joyful beach read, the feeling of the end of a teaching year, a mature woman about to enjoy a summer without responsibilities, her children gone, the only clue to something more sinister in the air, a reference halfway to her destination, when an unprompted feeling from the past arises and changes her mood.

It is the promise there is more to this woman than what we have witnessed thus far. We read attentively, alert to anything that seems odd, wondering what might be causing her to be so attentive to this family.

When you finish reading this novella, as I have just discovered now, a few days after finishing it, if you want to experience one final gasp of realisation, go back and reread the first page, that first one page chapter.

The Lost Daughter, The Film

I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to seeing what Director Maggie Gyllenhaal and Actor Olivia Colman will bring to the text, in the film that is due to come to the screen at the end of December.

Gyllenhaal is said to have written a letter to Ferrante asking if she could adapt the novel, to which Ferrante responded yes, if she were to direct it herself. The premiere at the Venice Film Festival received a four minute standing ovation.

The thing that drew her to Ferrante, she said, was the writer’s ability to say “these things out loud that I hadn’t really heard anyone say out loud, about mothering, about sex, about desire, about the intellectual life of women, about the artistic life of women.”

You can watch the trailer here.

Further Reading

Interview Guardian, Aug 2020: Elena Ferrante: ‘We don’t have to fear change, what is other shouldn’t frighten us’

Screenrant Film Review, Oct 2021: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter Is Exquisite & Nuanced by Mae Abdulbaki

22 thoughts on “The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

  1. I seem to be out of step with Ferrante. I’m willing enough to read her books, but for me they lack the ‘must read’ factor, and I struggle to understand why. I’m never fully engaged with the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love them, this is the last for me, I’ve read them all now, they are most certainly in a league of their own and I’ve really enjoyed going back to the earlier works prior to the tetralogy and also Frantumaglia, a work of nonfiction about her writing process.

      There’s little in the way of resolution, but they spark interesting discussions. I can understand that not everyone is curious about the dsyfunctional aspect of women and mothers and girls, but I find her stories totally immersive and incredibly bold. This one is a relatively quick read, possibly her shortest novel in fact.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I have deliberately not read this book yet – Ferrante is really something to take on and I have to be in the right mood. I just watched the trailer – it looks fabulous. I would be interested to hear what you think of the movie. I hope you write about that. Thanks so much for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m interested to see how the novel will be interpreted, though I imagine there is much within the novel that can’t be expressed visually, so worth reading as well. I’m not sure I’ll write about the film, that’s a little outside my purview.

      I think this novella is relatively easy to pick up and read, but certainly we need to be in the mood for this kind of diversion. I hope you try it Valorie. Thanks for visiting, lovely to hear from you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s horrible.
      I read this review through my email, and came here to comment that this one might tempt me back to Ferrante. I’d liked the first couple that I’d read and then found her writing too overwrought for my taste and recycled some of her novels that I’d bought without reading them.
      This one, thanks to this review, sounded interesting, but honestly, that cover? I just don’t want to read any more books with that trope!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Maybe I missed something, I’m not sure what the trope is?
        Did you mean a girl’s attachment to her doll?
        I do hope you read it and tell us more about that. If there’s a hidden trope, I’d say it was menopause, it’s never mentioned of course, but there is a clash here of hormones, one woman with the incoming flood of maternal hormones and the other experiencing the outgoing depletion of them, both circumstances very much influencing a woman’s mind and behaviour.


        • I went and looked up doll tropes, wondering what they were, it’s an intriguing subject, but no this isn’t about child abuse, the doll turned away unable to see her face, might be something a child would do to punish her doll, a form of expressing a lack of attention, if I were to hazard a guess.


  3. Having seen a preview of the film at the London Film Festival, I’m now very keen to read the book. It sounds suitably powerful and layered, very much in line with Ferrante’s other work.

    Interestingly, Gyllenhall changes the nationalities of some of the key characters in her adaptation of the novella. The family that Leda meets on holiday are from Queens, NYC, while Leda herself is English, a languages/literature professor fluent in Italian. I loved the film and was riveted by Olivia Colman’s performance — as I mentioned on Twitter. I’m not always a fan of Colman, but she’s truly excellent in this. There’s real depth and complexity in the character she projects – she’s vulnerable, spiky, lonely and unpredictable. I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think of her performance compared to your impressions of Leda from the book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was wondering how she would portray that connection to language and also that element related to someone who has worked to remove themselves from their working class roots and finds their idyllic summer retreat provoking memories of the past that are clearly not quite as far from the surface as she had realised, having been preoccupied with an intellectual (therefore mind occupying) profession and raising daughters. I think it is a fascinating psychological portrait and I’m looking forward to seeing the film. I really hope you read the book, it’s very atmospheric and slowly develops that Ferrantesque intensity that is so recognisable. I like that it is novella length too, all the elements are there, none overly laboured.


  4. I haven’t read Ferrante but I’ve been seeing the trailers for The Lost Daughter (and feeling mostly confused) and for My Brilliant Friend (which I believe is also based on one of her books). The Lost Daughter seems to be a contender this awards season, so I’ll probably catch it at some point. Your review helps give a sense of the mood of the story, and a sense that maybe it is supposed to be a little confusing (in which case…ok). Since you seem to be a fan, which book would you recommend for a Ferrante newb – The Lost Daughter?


    • A lot of people started with My Brilliant Friend, including me and then were either pulled in or felt like she’s not for them. I’ve really enjoyed going back and exploring her backlist, the novels that build up to the trilogy. So I’d probably recommend starting with something like The Lost Daughter or The Days of Abandonment and if you enjoy her style then try the tetralogy.


  5. Pingback: Best Books Read in 2021 Part 2: Top 10 Fiction – Word by Word

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